Global warming, pollution and declining resources generate great urgency among scientists looking for solutions by expanding the frontiers of exploration and developing new technologies.
In doing so, they’re thinking big: They’re asking not only how to solve these problems at home, but also how to achieve efficiency and sustainability in space exploration.
But it turns out that some solutions stem from thinking small.
Researchers from five continents released a report this week in Nature Communications It states that microbe-based technologies could make future life in space more economical and sustainable.
They envision space-grown colonies of microbes being used to produce new medicines, generate clean air through recycling, and even create “microbial biomass rich in proteins and fats for food production” by harnessing microbes that live off human waste.
Rosa Santomartino, lead author of the report and researcher at the UK Center for Astrobiology in Edinburgh, said in a recent interview.
“Microbes are really amazing and do so many jobs for us on Earth that we often don’t even realize,” Santomartino told CNET. “Microbes are used extensively in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, to produce insulin and antibiotics, as well as to extract minerals from mines, and more recently there have been efforts to use them to build structures.”
In all, the researchers discussed nine approaches to making space research “more circular,” that is, more self-sustaining. Among the basic concepts:
- Microbial processes can mine rocks to discover and extract valuable elements and can do so more efficiently than current mechanical processes. The report says that biomining for copper, gold and nickel is already cost-effective on a commercial scale.
- Biogeochemical processes can be used to create binding agents for structural repair. This would reduce reliance on the expensive raw materials currently used in building construction and maintenance.
- Microbes make great recycling. Existing processes may only recycle the same plastics several times before their quality deteriorates to unacceptable levels. But the microbes that feed on the plastic break down the material into its original elements which in turn can be used to generate a new plastic sound.
- Anaerobic bacteria feed on human excrement. In doing so, they can generate electrical charges. These generators can power lights and appliances economically, while reducing organic waste.
- Microbes can be used to remove toxic compounds from the soil such as heavy metals, radioactive compounds, acids and various pollutants.
- air bioremediation. This could clean the air in space habitats. While current methods of removing carbon dioxide from the air are not very efficient, a lot of hydrogen and carbon is lost, and must be replaced. Microbial processing can strip the air of carbon dioxide while preserving the carbon for manufacturing foods and nutritional supplements.
The researchers make no secret of their strong belief in the usefulness of the microbial approach to space exploration. The report states, “Debate about the public benefits of space travel and exploration is healthy and necessary, but in the area of sustainability, space advocates may now have a chance to win that debate for a generation.”
Rosa Santomartino et al., Towards Sustainable Space Exploration: A Roadmap for Harnessing the Power of Microorganisms, Available Here. Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-37070-2
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